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Foreclosures: For novices, it's a crapshoot

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"You can never be absolutely sure you are going to be buying a house with a clean title in any sale, but foreclosures are particularly problematic," says John Mixon, law alumni professor at University of Houston Law Center.

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During a typical foreclosure auction, the homes that will be sold are listed in the legal advertising section of the county's newspaper of record at least a week before the sale. And while you may have a week to research the records and history for each house scheduled for auction, many homeowners settle their disputes with the bank at the 11th hour, halting the sale. This means any time, effort or expense you invested to research the home is lost. Given these constraints, obtaining title insurance is out of the question.

But choosing to forgo title research could end up being infinitely more costly. "There are so many regulations, so many procedures that if you leave out a step, a previous owner may come out of the woodworks and show this to the court and you lose everything you put into the deal," says John T. Reed, editor of Real Estate Investor's Monthly newsletter and author of the book "How to Buy Real Estate For At Least 20% Below Market Value."

Even if a title blunder doesn't invalidate the sale, overlooking a lien that wasn't wiped out by the foreclosure, such as an IRS debt you now have to pay, could wipe out any profit you hoped to earn. Procedural errors and court rulings could also halt a foreclosure sale. What's more, some state laws include a statutory redemption period, allowing the original homeowner to repay the past-due amount on their loan, regain ownership and leave the investor holding the bag.

Not all hopeless
But all that doesn't mean every auction deal is hopelessly risky.

"Very few institutional foreclosures are defectively handled," Mixon says, so the best bet is to stick to homes that were foreclosed by reputable lenders, but only if they were the first lien holder, usually through a first mortgage. If the deal was done properly on the front end, complete with title insurance, there's less likelihood that a skeleton is lurking, and about a 90-percent chance of getting a good title. "If you are buying a foreclosure brought by a small or shady lender or by a family member who lent the money, you may be looking at odds that are no better than you would get at the roulette table," Mixon says.

Government auctions
Another variation on the auction is buying properties foreclosed by a government agency, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Veterans Administration.

These auctions are typically conducted online through a marketing company. Buyers are allowed to tour the homes in advance, conduct inspections and can often get title insurance.

While these auctions are appealing, the availability of homes is limited and the small stock is often bid on by several buyers. This makes it a very competitive market with prices discounted only slightly, if at all, off current market value.

Tabletop negotiations
One purchase method advocated by numerous seminars and real estate gurus is to find property owners delinquent in their payments through legal ads or online services that search public records and courthouse documents. You could then approach the owner directly to negotiate a private deal.

Advocates of this method call it "buying equity." Essentially, investors pay the owner a fee and then take over the existing debt and the home. This keeps protects the homeowner's credit report from the black mark of foreclosure.

Buying equity this way is difficult if a seller's market exists because the owner could just as easily sell the home and usually pocket a greater amount in appreciation than an investor would be willing to pay.

"Some people call this stealing property," Reed says. "It is a situation fraught with ethical problems."

But similar to auction situations, the slightest slip-up could blow the deal, leaving the homeowner in the house and the investor out significant amounts of money. Also, all of the title problems inherent in an auction also apply in preforeclosure sales, except that without the legal proceedings of a foreclosure, all subordinate liens, such as home equity loans and construction liens, remain in place.

Sale mentality
Despite all the potential pitfalls, interest in foreclosures runs high. Part of the attraction comes from the same motivation that makes bargain shopping trendy, says C.J. Gehlke, editorial director of "The Resource," a monthly newsletter published by REO Nationwide.

"What you find is a frenzy similar to what you get at a department store sale," she says. "When you buy a house at foreclosure, it has the same mystique. You can brag to people at a cocktail party about how much you saved."

Reed agrees that get-rich-quick fantasies are driving most buyers' interest in foreclosures. "Buying foreclosures is not something a beginner should try. Many of the gurus are out there telling crowds anything they want to hear, true or not, just to sell some books."'s corrections policy -- Updated: July 17, 2007
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